Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Humility, Nobility, and a Scent of Urine

Posted by Neal on March 18, 2008

You know the feeling when you walk into your son’s room and find yourself wondering, “What’s that smell? It smells like … cat urine!”? Sure you do. We all do.

And you walk around sniffing, trying to figure out where it’s coming from, but you can’t quite pinpoint it, so you decide it must have been your imagination? And then you leave, and the next time you go in there, the smell hits you again? We’ve all been there.

That’s how I felt in fifth grade when our music teacher would have us sing “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” from the musical of that name. It’s not that I disliked the song. It was actually a good tune, as were “Fifty Nifty (United States)” and “Milk’s the Soft Soft Drink”, two other songs Mrs. Eisley was partial to. It started like this:

You’re a good man, Charlie Brown! You’re the kind of reminder we need.
You have humility, nobility, and a sense of honor that are very rare indeed.

Like a room smelling faintly of cat urine, there was something not quite right in the second line of the song. I never had time to dwell on it while we were singing the song, but by the end of the year, the song had been well-drilled into my head. The teacher had even had us memorize it, replacing Charlie Brown with the name of the school principal, who was retiring, and we sang it to him at a ceremony during the last week of school. So like the herpes virus, the melody is permanently lodged in my brain, poised to flare up as an earworm every now and then. Unfortunately, only about half the words have stayed with me, so that when the song is running through my head, I can’t get the full satisfaction of singing the whole thing. What I do get is the irritation of whatever is bothering me about that second line. But now, I know what the problem is.

So you know how, after a while of smelling the cat urine that you can’t get a fix on, you get one of those ultraviolet lights? And you turn out the lights and walk around shining the UV light on the floor and you can finally see the source of the problem? Next to the bookshelf … and in front of the closet … and behind the garbage can? Of course you do. A syntax course in graduate school was my urine-detecting ultraviolet light for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”. I’ll shine the light on the offending spot next time. Until then, do you smell it, too?


12 Responses to “Humility, Nobility, and a Scent of Urine”

  1. TootsNYC said

    thanks for the earworm!

    Only the sense of honor is rare? Given that it’s the only one that has the “a” and therefore could be modified, and the humility and nobility are given as absolutes?

    I’d forgotten about the UV light. That could be useful in the big closet–though my kids w/ the sensitive noses say the smell is gone now.

  2. Viola said

    Those words never set right with me, either, but I wasn’t sure if there was anything life-changing that I could do about it then…but now that I’m older…hmmm…I’m anxiously awaiting the enlightenment.

  3. Ran said

    Well, you can’t say *”You have humility that is very rare indeed”; you’d have to either make it countable, with “You have a humility that is very rare indeed”, or switch to a non-integrated relative, with “You have humility, which is very rare indeed” (which actually sounds to me like an adverbial relative, but I don’t think it necessarily is: “You have humility, which is a quality most people don’t have” is fine). Likewise with “nobility”. Coordinating them with a count noun doesn’t change that; so either you have to say “You have humility, nobility, and a sense of honor that is very rare indeed” (tying the relative clause specifically to “a sense of honor”), or something like “You have humility, nobility, and a sense of honor, which are very rare qualities indeed.”

  4. Kip said

    Wouldn’t the phrase “humility, nobility, and a sense of honor” represent a singular noun, not a plural? I don’t know enough about language syntax to say why though.

  5. Ellen K. said

    Seems to me the problem is that it’s not humility and nobility that are rare, but having humility and having nobility that are rare. Which philosophically may be a non distinction, but grammatically makes a clear difference.

    Which may be a different way at looking at the count/non-count noun problem, not sure.

    If I were to leave out “a sense of honor”, I’d put “You have humility and nobility; that is very rare indeed.” and it sounds fine to me. Or even, “You have humility, nobility, and honor; that is very rare indeed.”.

    If we say “humility that is very rare”, it seems to refer to a certain type of humility, the rare type. Which is why it’s, grammatically, having humility that is rare.

    Or so it seems to me. 🙂

    And same for nobility.

    With “a sense of honor” too, but, here, the idea of him having a particular type of sense of honor that is a rare type works. It may or may not be what’s meant, but it does work, and still conveys the intended compliment, I think.

  6. […] Posts Rhyming Words Don’t Sound the SameHumility, Nobility, and a Scent of UrineThe Beloved Sounds of Pachelbel’s Canon in DWaxing EloquentlyLike a RacehorseWhomever Is Never […]

  7. dgm said

    “So like the herpes virus, the melody is permanently lodged in my brain, poised to flare up as an earworm every now and then.”

    You have the herpes virus permanently lodged in your brain? Ew.

  8. Neal said

    Don’t be so literal, DGM!

  9. Viola said

    I wasn’t going to say anything about the STD, but now that you mention it: My Better Half calls herpes “The gift that keeps on giving.” The metaphor is clearly lodged in my brain now. Um, thank you Neal, for that wonderful interpretation.
    @dgm: Ditto to the ew! BTW, I like your blog, particularly the parts when you repeat what your little guy says (including all the w’s instead of r’s.) My youngest does the same….and it’s so darn cute.

  10. dgm said

    Aww . . . thanks, Viola. Please feel free to drop in the comments so I’ll know you’re out there.

    I know the speech therapists out there will tsk-tsk me, but I rue the day my little guy loses his “lithp” and starts using the letter “r.”

  11. TootsNYC said

    “You have humility and nobility; that is very rare indeed.”

    But….can you sing a semicolon? I don’t think so…

    It’s too subtle.

    But you *can* sing a period:
    “You have humility and nobility. That is very rare indeed.”

    I’m the choir leader at my church, so I know. 😉

  12. […] the teachers set up that week. I hadn’t played the tape in probably 20 years, but like that other song I wrote about, “Kamuga Junku” surfaces now and again as an earworm for a day or so. One day it […]

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